Joyce Nakashima’s first encounter with the Japanese American Optimist Club was its youth basketball league, where she played with the West Los Angeles Cruisers.
More than 25 years later, Nakashima is back with JAO — this time as club president. Nakashima, who was installed as the club’s 61st president Oct. 4, said she was inspired to take on the top job after volunteering for six years as a member and seeing all of the community good works performed.
“You realize how much JAO does and how much work it takes,” she said. “When people think of JAO, they think of basketball, but we do so much more. We need to show the community what we do.”
JAO is one of Optimist International’s 2,900 clubs with 87,000 members in 35 nations. Guided by the organization’s motto, “Friend of Youth,” and its mission of “Bringing Out the Best in Kids,” the club sponsors a back-to-school backpack giveaway, Halloween and Christmas parties for underserved youth, a career day, oratorical and essay contests, a pen-pal program with elementary students, and helps out at other community events, such as Nisei Week. Its largest and best-known program, however, is the Invitational Girls Basketball League, which serves 1,300 girls on 130 teams from second grade through high school.
Despite the club’s many activities, membership has slipped from a peak of 150 to the current 69, mirroring Optimist International’s overall decline over the past decade. Nakashima said two of her major goals are turning around that decline and raising the club’s profile through greater use of social media. The club recently launched a new Facebook page and has enlisted its youngest member, USC graduate student Ryan Taketomo, to work with board member Jeff Tani to update its webpage. Twitter and Instagram accounts are being considered.
Nakashima, who was raised in West L.A. and currently resides in Woodland Hills, is the oldest of three children to George and Hiroko Nakashima. She took note of her small family in her acceptance speech and said she always thought of JAO members as her “extended family” whose ages span eight decades, from the 20s to 90s.
She majored in dietetic and food administration at Cal State Los Angeles and earned her master’s degree in nutrition at Cal State Northridge. She is a consultant dietitian for Professional Directions for Healthcare, an expertise she has freely shared with club members. One member asked her if Pop Tarts were an acceptable breakfast, to which Nakashima replied: only as a last resort.
Passionate about community service, she has served as a board member of APEX (Asian Professional Exchange) and volunteered at Camp Ronald McDonald for children with cancer in addition to her JAO work. Her hobbies are running and hiking.
“As a club member, maybe she’ll get us moving, too,” club secretary Russel Fujii said in his introduction of Nakashima at the installation luncheon, which was attended by about 50 people at the Miyako Hotel in Little Tokyo. “We can count on her to bring us forward.”
Nakashima is the second woman president in JAO’s six-decade history, following Nikki Kodama in 2009. And this year’s president-elect is Eileen Yoshimura, a succession that will make club history as the first back-to-back women leaders for an organization founded by Nisei men after World War II.
Mike Padilla, governor of Optimist International’s Pacific Southeast District, installed Nakashima and the club’s 2014-15 officers and directors: Kitty Sankey, vice president of youth; Kari Tani, vice president of membership; Keith Inatomi, vice president of ways and means; Russel Fujii, secretary; Jim Christensen, treasurer; Kevin Shimabukuro, immediate past president; Eileen Yoshimura, president-elect; and board members Jeff Tani, Terry Hara and Leland Lau.